Joseph Beuys


Dear Artist,

I’m laptopping to you this morning from the Tate Modern in London, England. I’ve a confession to make. While I dearly love seeing quality paintings, and love even more trying to make them, I’m a bit of a junkie when it comes to contemporary installation art. This place is screaming with the stuff. Glazed gallery goers, their minds numbed by the visual challenges, wander in the ambience of this renovated power station on the south bank of the Thames. To the many who snicker and snort, it’s sort of an intellectual curiosity and freak show.


“I Like America and America Likes Me”
Performance Art, NYC, New York, USA, 1974
by Joseph Beuys (1921-1986)

My main interest here today is an extensive accumulation of the work of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986). He was a sculptor, shaman, showman, teacher and debater. He spent most of his life in Kleve and Dusseldorf, in Germany. One of his central ideas was that there is a creator in all of us and art is in everything we do. He thought that it is not what an artist makes that’s important — but how he is — his personality, his activities, his opinions. Details of our daily lives are in themselves art and grist for our artistic mills. As a Luftwaffe pilot during the Second World War he was shot down in the Crimea and attributed his survival to the help of nomadic Tartars who supposedly nurtured him with felt and fat. These latter elements exist in many of his art objects and are a part of his personal mythology.


early watercolour by Joseph Beuys

As well as his grandiose sculptures of stone and iron there are cases of framed memorabilia and other items: found materials, pressed flowers, honey, gold leaf, silver foil, part of a dead hare, tufts of grass, classroom blackboards, travel tickets, notepads, cigar packages, coyote droppings, bundled newspapers, photo and clipping albums, Green Party pamphlets, toiletries, inconsequential drawings and doodles, creative ideas and pencil notes scribbled on anything handy. People are bending over examining degraded remnants of felt and fat. Even the fedora that covered his war wounds is worthy of display.

A woman comes and sits beside me. She is biding her time, waiting for her partner who is looking at the Beuys material. She makes notes in a small book. It appears to be a list of items to be taken to the dry cleaner.

joseph-beuys (2)

King’s Daughter Sees Iceland”
painting 1960 by Joseph Beuys

Best regards,


PS: “Everybody is an artist.” (Joseph Beuys)

Esoterica: Do not omit collecting the progression of your own creativity. Do not fail to archive your sentiments. Keep dry and out of harm’s way the detritus of your output. Be prolific. Your mind is capable of far more than it is exhibiting at the present.

This letter was originally published as “Joseph Beuys” on September 24, 2002.


Performance piece New York 1974: Swathed in felt, Beuys shared a room with a wild coyote for 3 days, 8 hours-a-day. At the end of the 3 days, he hugged the coyote that had grown quite tolerant of him and returned home to Germany without having set foot on American soil. “What is Art? Conversations with Joseph Beuys” clarifies what Beuys meant when he said that everybody is an artist.


If you find these letters beneficial, please share and encourage your friends to subscribe. The Painter’s Keys is published primarily by a team of volunteers, with a goal to reach as many creative people as possible. Thanks for your friendship. Subscribe here!

“…between my sixteenth to nineteenth years… I saw a possibility for art to be principally of interest to innovate some things, instead of writing a very boring, naturalistic repetition of what is already done by nature.” (Joseph Beuys)



  1. “Installations” are the bane of the art scene. Sorry but I must say it as it appeas to me. I so often cannot distinguish among the “works” whether they are simply cynical construcions to see how far one can go, or whether they really have some creative thought process and related evolution stage which led to the mysterious objects often made of reject materials.
    Surely there is a dividing line somehwre here. Perhaps life long students/professors in art will have a more complete comment.

    • roberto Espinoza cañedo on

      i say this with some hesitance, but full conviction; That art takes on many dress codes, and that is meant to complicate yet invite discussion. Cynicism itself can be a driving force to the creative process. I say all this because I am pushing my art creativeness in hopefully New directions.

  2. I met Joseph Beuys in the early 70’s when he visited Belfast. He visited many times. We all regarded him as a star. I was studying Silversmithing and Jewellry at the College of Art and Design and he would visit the different departments. He gave large informal talks in the foyer. His idea was that a new society would emerge out of the mini civil war that was raging in the streets of Belfast at the time. It seemed a brave new world that he envisaged but it was not to be. He was a considerable character though.

    • You wasted you time in the Tate Modern you should have visited the Tate British Museum that’s where the real art is!! JTSnodgrass.

  3. Joseph Beuys was obviously a person of artistic genius, just look to the comments above to see how he shook up our minds about what “art” is! I personally got a bit squeamish when I looked at his oeuvre but I recognized a spirit of creative striving. As for the supposed dichotomy between the Tate Modern and Tate British Museums, isn’t “real” art on a continuum? Does historic art have any more claim to being “real” than that created every day, right now?

    • No- it doesn’t. It may seem to have been validated just because it has existed for a while- but that’s the only thing it has going for it. If it’s bad old art- it’s still just as bad as bad new art. And what I think is bad and what you think is bad may be completely different- because it’s all subjective. And JTSODGRASS proves it’s all subjective- with his/her comment that the tate modern isn’t where IT (the good art) is at.

  4. I’m well aware that this point has been repeated often enough to be hackneyed, but I do wonder if those who damn aspects of contemporary art practice such as Beuys’ installations, upholding instead the works of historically vouchsafed painters, realize how controversial painters like the Tate’s J.M.W. Turner were in their own time. I can’t fault those who want to engage in debate, but writing off whole categories of artistic practice (or entire museums) is rather a waste of everyone’s time isn’t it? There are complex discussions to be had about the specific curatorial approaches of different museums, or the particular periods of a given artist’s production, for example, where protest or praise may be in order, but this requires effort, research and a committed attitude. I never met Beuys, but do take quite seriously the comment made by the late David Sylvester, a committed and effortful critic if ever there was one… He pointed out that of all the artists he’d met, Beuys was among the most noteworthy in terms of the degree of awareness he showed in relation to the practices of his peers. Beuys has been called a lot of things – showman, charlatan, etc.- but it seems rather crucial to recognize that he was nothing if not engaged.

    • Nice comment. When I was in London, it was Turner who stunned me. But my sister loved Beuys.
      Anyway, Beuys is far superior to Damien Hurst & David Salle, both anointed by the establishment for their “advanced” work.

    • Thank you John Luna for your articulate reply. It took me awhile to warm to Beuys, but seeing his large felt pieces in Germany a few years ago I was really staggered. He is not someone you get right away, and only the continual visiting of art museums over the years in as many countries as you can visit will hone your taste. Some of us are lucky to be able to practice our art for many many years, as did Robert Genn, and were able to visit museums internationally. With that kind of experience, your taste evolves and changes over the years. On the other hand, my best friend of 30 years has just taken up art and it’s a pleasure to see her discover this world all over again.

  5. “Every one is an artist” and as they say “yah, right”
    As some one who paints, (watercolours), I have never heard of this man….but am more impressed with his being able to hang around with a coyote for 3 days than his “art”.
    His “kicking horse” must surely be a striking example of “thinking outside the box” and actually got me to think of something to say.
    One has to be truly gifted….as he was….to paint something so simple, but at the same time so unique even if he did use several well known watercolour “tricks”.
    What horse has a hole in his stomach and only one rear foot and no hoofs?
    How then….time to take a serious look at a cow.
    Thanks Sara.

  6. Pingback: Seni Rupa Kontemporer - Local Project

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop

featured-workshop 18311

Featured Artist


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.